WONDER WOMAN: EARTH ONE HC
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Yanick Paquette and Nathan Fairbairn
Published by DC Comics
Release Date: April 6, 2016
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS DETAILED DISCUSSION OF WONDER WOMAN: EARTH ONE. CONSIDER THIS YOUR SPOILER WARNING.
On its surface, Wonder Woman: Earth One is the tried and true story of a rebellious daughter who acts out against her overworked single mother by running around in a kigurumi and stealing the family car for the weekend.
It’s a testament to Grant Morrison’s relentless evolution that the notoriously daunting writer could turn in such a brisk and accessible story for his definitive take on the final member of DC’s trinity. But the ultimate key to its success comes from Yanick Paquette — and Morrison’s trust in him to not only drive the story, but embed all layers of meaning and intertextuality that Morrison narrated through his early work into the art itself.
The typical expectation of an iconic Morrison comic is that it demands multiple close and careful readings to properly engage with it, but Wonder Woman: Earth One does the opposite. It invites those readings by replacing the authoritative voice of the author with the subjective interpretation of the artwork. It’s a particularly effective strategy for approaching Wonder Woman, whose primary weakness over the last several decades has been the extremely didactic approach taken by most of her creative teams.
Wonder Woman: Earth One is told more or less in the Rashomon style with Diana on trial for breaking Amazonia’s laws in coming to Steve Trevor’s aid, with the triple goddess of maiden, mother, and crone presiding as judges. As in Rashomon and the more conventional courtroom dramas that draw inspiration from it, the focus of the narrative is on overlapping witness testimony delivered by Diana, Etta Candy, Steve Trevor, and Hippolyta with a judgement delivered based on the interpretation of their subjective experiences.
It’s a choice that ties into how meaning has to be uncovered in the art rather than delivered, but it’s also a reflection of Morrison’s unparalleled fluency in the mythic structure of the DCU.
Putting Diana on trial makes perfect sense, because in the eyes of creators, critics, and readers, she’s been on trial consistently since at least the 1960s in a way that no other iconic superhero has. One of the fundamental building blocks of DC storytelling is the struggle of its iconic heroes to reconcile themselves with the abstract ideas that they represent, which frequently manifests in creative teams pursuing reconciliations of their own.
When that approach works, as it has for Morrison with Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Kid Eternity, and All Star Superman, the result can transform how we view a character and provide fresh insight into the issues at hand.
This approach routinely fails when it comes to Wonder Woman because Diana has been — from Crisis on Infinite Earths through to Flashpoint — presented almost without fail as the platonic ideal of womanhood in the DCU. The last thirty or so years of Wonder Woman have been (with notable exceptions including Greg Rucka and Gail Simone’s treatments) cycles of setting her up on a pedestal then tearing her back down.
Prime examples of her downswings include: that time Diana worked for a Taco Bell analogue; when she stepped away from Wonder Woman to go back to the Diana Prince secret agent persona; and that time she didn’t know how to order coffee at Starbucks or pump gas.
On the flip side, the examples of other female superheroes holding her up as an untouchable ideal are too numerous to list. There certainly is a point to be made about how all of this is the product of the contradictory expectations placed on women in the public eye, but it’s hardly intentional or well considered. In most cases, it’s simply the process of interrogating femininity by using Diana as a surrogate.
When Morrison was asked in his Final Crisis exit interview why Wonder Woman had such a diminished role relative to Superman and Batman, he answered it by illuminating the key points that made her such a slippery subject and targeted her for that never ending cycle of interrogation, hinting at the genesis of Wonder Woman: Earth One:
“I wondered about that myself. I love what Gail Simone (especially) and other writers have done to empower the Wonder Woman concept but I must admit I’ve always sensed something slightly bogus and troubling at its heart. When I dug into the roots of the character I found an uneasy melange of girl power, bondage and disturbed sexuality that has never been adequately dealt with or fully processed out to my mind. I’ve always felt there was something oddly artificial about Wonder Woman, something not like a woman at all.
Having said that, I became quite fascinated by these contradictions and problems and tried to resolve them for what turned into a different project entirely. Partly because I didn’t want to use any of that new material in Final Crisis, I relegated Wonder Woman to a role that best summed up my original negative feelings about the character. My apologies to her fans and I promise to be a little more constructive next time around.”
What Morrison was talking about was the bits and pieces of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston’s original vision of the character that have rattled around like shards of broken glass throughout her publication history without ever being properly reconciled.
Marston’s work is frequently written off as being the product of crank psychiatry and kink being sold as a legitimate worldview. While there’s more than a bit of truth to that conclusion, any honest evaluation of those Golden Age stories will yield more insight into what gives Wonder Woman the potential to be a truly transformative figure in superhero fiction than any other major character’s formative years in print.
The worldview that Marston sought to disseminate through the comics called for society as a whole to yield to femininity in loving submission as a counterpoint to what he characterized as the “bloodcurdling masculinity” inherent to not just superhero fiction, but society at large. In his estimation, the world could use more of a feminine influence, and the clearest route to that was the bondage play that suffused his tenure on Wonder Woman and informed his work in psychology.
Morrison is no stranger to exploring the seemingly inherent kink of superhero fiction, having made it a central element of his collaboration with Frank Quitely on Flex Mentallo, and returning to that motif in New X-Men, where they traded up the repressed Victorian sexuality of Claremont’s Hellfire Club for leather and PVC based designs that reflected the contemporary fetish scene. While it certainly established Morrison’s credentials on the matter, there’s a world of difference between what he and Quitely explored there and what he and Paquette contend with in Wonder Woman: Earth One.
Marston’s fondness for bondage play is inextricably linked to an essentialist view of gender that characterized femininity as being inherently preferable if not outright superior to masculinity. Morrison is perhaps the first writer in decades, if ever, to accept both as necessary parts of a whole.
Marston was an iconoclast in all aspects of life, but his perspective on gender has stood as a particular affront to a genre that has gone to great lengths to justify its embrace of bloodcurdling masculinity and spectacular levels of violence against women — an attitude most clearly expressed in the constant need to characterize Amazonia as a standing threat to the outside world and the idea that matriarchy would, by definition, replicate the violent subjugation of patriarchy.
In many conceptions, Diana is presented as the bulwark against the barbarian hordes, and nowhere is that more evident than in Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s revised history of Amazonia that presented the Amazons as a sex-swapped equivalent of the Spartans who preyed on men to further their line and sell their male offspring into slavery.
That series in particular highlighted a consistent blind spot for understanding how power and privilege function across Azzarello’s entire body of work. While Morrison has himself struggled with the same throughout his career, there’s a very clear effort to not just engage with it, but place emphasis on how the realities of patriarchy ought to inform a reasoned portrayal of Amazonia and its residents.
Instead of simplistically mapping Marston’s vision onto the Amazons and attempting to reconcile that with the modern world, Morrison has plunged himself into an examination of feminist ideology to conceive of how a society of immortal women separated from the rest of the world for millennia might operate. He’s tasked Paquette with conceiving of art and architecture designed specifically to exclude phallic imagery.
The results are easily discernible in Paquette’s pages, as the dominant visual motif in everything from buildings to weapons and jugs is scalloped and seashell shapes meant to evoke a vagina or vulva. But the most novel application is how the front of the invisible jet appears to use the clitoral hood for inspiration, which is repeated elsewhere in designs that are more difficult to replicate without phallic shapes. After the gasps and giggles subside, it really does stand out as a particularly elegant solution to a difficult design problem.
The results of Morrison’s task — the ideology of the Amazons — is messier and rightly so. The story begins with Hercules holding Hippolyta by a leash and trying to break her psychologically in front of her captive sisters as part of his mythic twelve labors. Hippolyta manages to wrest her girdle free of him and liberate her sisters, but the trauma of her captivity is what drives her to petition Aphrodite to allow them to withdraw from the world, where they remain isolated on Amazonia for the following three thousand years.
Amazonia as we see it in Wonder Woman: Earth One is a reflection of Hippolyta and her desires for her people — and Diana in particular. In their three thousand years of isolation, the Amazons have produced incredible advancements in science and technology, but they’ve also stagnated politically and culturally, which we now can see Diana chafe against.
Diana begins her testimony by relating the story of taking a wounded deer to be healed by their purple ray, which, we’re told, she operates better than anyone. Tthis particular doe injures herself once a century — the implication being that these are suicide attempts Diana doesn’t recognize because she was born into a society that has conquered death. But she also shares that same fundamental ennui, as she rails against her mother’s prohibition against participating in the games for the festival of her namesake, the goddess of the hunt.
The festival goes on as planned, a celebration affirming the Amazons’ greatness to themselves — until Diana steals Hercules’ lion pelt from her mother and challenges her sisters while wearing it, questioning their self assurance and leading them on a chase through the woods. When they rise to the occasion, Hippolyta is enraged at her daughter for wearing a symbol of the oppressor.
This leads to Diana’s discovery of Steve Trevor, crash-landed on Amazonia’s shores, whom she tries to heal with the purple ray (only to discover that it won’t work on him because he’s a man). Unwilling to leave him for dead, Diana returns to the festival wearing the pelt to challenge the champion, defeating Mala at Kangaroo jousting for the first time in centuries and demanding her invisible jet as a prize.
This infuriates Hippolyta and kicks off a confrontation between mother and daughter that reveals the full extent of Hippolyta’s politics and perspective on the world outside. Watching it only through snippets in her magic mirror, Hippolyta’s pain and humiliation have metastasized into unyielding scorn, presenting Diana with a tableau of the degradations of Man’s World that could have been pulled straight out of The Filth — especially the image of a woman held on a leash by an unseen man in cowboy boots meant to evoke Hercules. Incidentally it that also bears a striking resemblance to one of The Filth’s villains, Tex Porneau, a Marquis De Sade-like figure based on real life pornographer Max Hardcore.
Hippolyta’s world view is clearly pulled together from a pastiche of second wave feminist thought. Her rancor at the depredations of men extends to an outright dismissal of conventional femininity beyond the island as anything but a manifestation of patriarchy’s control over mortal women. While Hippolyta approaches the world outside from a position of scorn, Diana is driven by compassion and a desire to understand in all of her interactions.
As such, Diana doesn’t take on the voice of rebuttal against Hippolyta’s rhetoric. That role, appropriately, falls to Etta Candy, who appears as a sorority girl rescued by Diana when their bus is caught up in the storm — a storm unleashed by Hippolyta’s fury as Diana attempts to secure medical treatment for Steve in Miami.
Etta, whose characterization Morrison based on singer and activist Beth Ditto (whose likeness can sometimes be glimpsed in the bold eyebrows Paquette gifts her with), acts as the third wave rejoinder to Hippolyta’s second wave scold. She does so first by countering Mala’s criticism of her figure and voicing her disappointment that there are “class bitches” among the Amazons, then by rejecting the label of “Man’s World” and fiercely advocating for Diana during her testimony. Etta Candy is truly one of the highlights of the comic. If there’s an authoritative voice of the narrative, she’s the only one that a serious case can be argued for.
Morrison and Paquette’s vision of her is as a bon vivant, who under different circumstances would naturally thrive among the Amazons. Etta is clearly just as invested in pleasure and the collective welfare of women as they are, with only the privileges of immortality dividing them.
In the confrontations between Etta and the less open-minded Amazons like Mala and Hippolyta, we see the collision between the idealized vision of Wonder Woman that the rest of the DCU is frequently called on to fawn over and the women who labor in the shadow of that example.
The most critical element of Etta’s success as a character is, that as much confidence in herself and her appearance as Morrison’s dialogue imbues her with, Paquette doesn’t shy away from her figure or diminish her relative to the Amazons. Etta is there to represent a concrete and realistic femininity that reveals Amazonia for the synthetic fantasy that it is, but she’s no less attractive or sensuous for it. She’s by far the most animated and lively figure in the comic, and thinks nothing of wearing sleeveless tops or form fitting dresses and leggings.
Etta takes up space unapologetically which comes through in her assertive posture, but she also makes her reactions seen by seemingly photobombing every panel she’s in, frequently looking directly at the audience and sneaking behind whoever the focus is on as if she’s intent on letting us know what she’s thinking at any given moment.
Steve Trevor’s role is mostly diminished to being that of a damsel in distress, which, for the most part works out just fine, but is somewhat problematized by his blackness. Presenting Steve Trevor as a black man is a welcome idea, but the opportunity to explore the semiotics of Wonder Woman’s bondage play and the role of white supremacy within patriarchy gets little more than lip service.
While confined to a hotel by the military following Diana’s brazen delivery of Steve to a hospital and her rescue of Etta’s sorority, Diana presents Steve with a collar in order to bond them together, and he’s understandably taken aback. But the reasons for why he’d be blindsided by a white woman asking him to kneel to her in “loving submission” are left completely up to inference, even by Etta’s brief commentary on the matter.
Where it does come into play is during his brief testimony. When pressed to explain why he lied to the military by claiming that Diana was the only Amazon, he alluded to the history of slavery and his own experience of contemporary oppression, choosing to align himself with the Amazons in a show of solidarity that Hippolyta skeptically accepts.
The resolution of the story, and more specifically Wonder Woman, is hardly surprising for anyone well acquainted with Morrison’s work. The wily Scotsman has yet to encounter a binary that he couldn’t resolve into a synthesis — and he doesn’t disappoint on that score. His decision to portray Amazonia as an admirable but stagnant society finds its purpose in Diana’s decision to call Hippolyta to testify, questioning how she could possibly have bodily autonomy if she really was the clay homunculus that her mother claimed her to be.
Compelled to tell the truth by the golden rope spun by the Fates, she reveals that her account wasn’t entirely true. Hippolyta made Diana, completely under her own power, as she claimed, but did so through alchemical means with Hercules as unknowing sperm donor. Her original intent, informed by her grief and anger, had been for Diana to be a huntress like her namesake with patriarchy as her prey. Instead she grew to become a great healer and possessed of incredible compassion, demonstrated by recalibrating the purple ray to work on Steve after being turned to stone by Medusa.
The result invites a reinterpretation of Diana’s place within the mythic structure of the DCU and the reassertion of a larger ideal for her to reckon with rather than be the ideal for other women to measure themselves against. Diana’s fundamental struggle, as outlined here, is to hold on to compassion in the face of overwhelming cruelty, and understand the difference between loving submission and oppressive dominance.
Wonder Woman: Earth One finds Diana struggling under the expectations of her mother to be the eternal princess, but by and large this is precisely where the character has been caught up for decades, expected to cleanly and neatly project the values of the audience without being able to live, laugh, love, or even cry with the same freedom as the likes of Batgirl, Black Canary, or any of her other contemporaries.
There’s a vitality to Diana in this story that truly does not exist anywhere else. The bulk of this falls to Paquette, who guides us through Diana’s emotions far more than any line of dialogue conveys. From her the sleepy-eyed contentment embodying the ambivalence she feels at the comforts of Amazonia, relative to her desire for action and a life of her own, to her raucous glee as she leads her enraged sisters on a merry chase through the woods, there’s never any question of what she’s thinking or feeling. It’s precisely that quality combined with dynamic panelling that allows Paquette to work in a hyper-realistic style that sacrifices kinetic figures to convey the static nature of Amazonia as a culture without feeling stiff or sacrificing reader engagement.
Without confronting Marston’s legacy directly, even the best work done with the character has come off as spackling over rot, skirting fundamental issues that refuse to go away, but here we see a playful, inquisitive, and above all approachable vision of Diana unlike anything else. While other visions chase questions that don’t particularly need answering — like the gruesome path that Azzarello and Chiang went down by introducing reproductive scarcity as a central part of the mythology — Morrison and Paquette deliver a gleaming, sensuous, and most importantly demilitarized home for Diana that also introduces an unprecedented and intrinsic queerness to her world.
We’re told, more often than not in asides and interviews with creators, that of course there are Amazons in romantic and sexual relationships somewhere out there off the page — and nowhere in sight of Diana or Hippolyta despite their best efforts. It remains a bitter pill that Gail Simone was denied her intent to marry Hippolyta to one of her royal guards, but it’s a tremendous victory that Diana could finally assert an explicit queerness of her own, portraying herself and Mala as lovers.
Wonder Woman: Earth One is by no means an all encompassing vision of queer female desire, but the gaze it projects is one of women whose performance of gender and sexuality is exclusively for each other.
There’s no question that the audience is invited in to view the Amazons as sexualized bodies and their bondage play as being overtly sensual if not outright erotic. But it’s also very clearly constructed to portray an autonomous sexuality dislocated from male dominance or direction, using Hercules’ depredations and contemporary analogues as the counterpoint.
Paquette’s figures play an important role in establishing those distinctions, particularly in conveying Diana’s contentedness and direct eye contact while held in chains by fellow Amazons and Hercules’ gruesome leering as he delights in Hippolyta’s disgust. It’s Nathan Fairbairn’s colors that charge Hercules’ appearances with the electric intensity of the warm oranges of the panel borders built out of shattered pottery against the cool blues of the content, conveying the fraught nature conflict as Hippolyta struggles to free herself.
Appropriately, Diana’s own voyeuristic gaze invites the audience to join, as she watches what is more or less an orgy unfold during the festival. And it’s Etta Candy, who freely asserts herself as bisexual, who critiques the limitations of the fantasy and challenges the Amazons’ prejudices and assumptions about where self-directed performances of femininity end and oppressive enforcement of patriarchal beauty norms begin.
Etta is the closest thing to a stand-in for the reader as she delights in what appeals to her about the fantasy world that Hippolyta has constructed and holds nothing back in critiquing what she views as its shortcomings. When Diana returns to Amazonia for her trial, she’s dressed according to Etta’s appetites, coded an act of submitting to Etta’s will with Etta fastening Diana’s bustier presented as an analogue for Amazonian bondage play. Etta implies she got more than a little of an erotic thrill out of it, eyes fixed directly on the audience with a grin that might as well be hiding a mouthful of canary feathers.
Morrison’s disappearance behind the page, Diana’s beckoning to include the audience in the fantasy, and Etta Candy’s penchant for mugging for the camera are all in service to what feels like the logical conclusion of a journey Morrison began on Animal Man when he stepped onto the page to converse with Buddy directly and allowed himself to become part of the story.
The sequence was born out of the desire to pull back the curtain on how the voice of the writer and their immediate concerns can override the character, but it also came from a desire to interact with his creations directly that he followed up on in The Invisibles. By blurring the lines between himself and his characters as much as he dared through the creation of King Mob as a reflection of his idealized self image, he’s now moved on to speak directly to the audience through them without the pretense of appearing as himself.
That further evolved into his stated desire for his characters to project a sense of self awareness when Ryan Sook drew Zatanna’s hand pressed against the page like a pane of glass in Seven Soldiers of Victory: Zatanna #4, asserting an awareness of being watched without the intercession of a surrogate for Morrison himself. Wonder Woman: Earth One takes it a step even further by imbuing in Diana a sense that she’s been aware of us the entire time.
“It’s time we had a talk,” she says, looking out at us after the Fates cut the golden cord that has not just been grasped in turn by each of the characters called to testify in Diana’s trial, but integrated into the page layouts of the entire comic. Diana’s been cut free of the restriction of the page.
If Morrison himself were anywhere in the comic, it was among the Fates, contriving of the circumstances to facilitate a dialogue between Diana and the audience, the complete inversion of stepping in to meet with Buddy. If ever there was a comic that needed to carry with it a sense of incompleteness without the audience, this is it.
Whatever your assessment of what Morrison and Paquette have laid out is, the message is clear: gamble a stamp on Wonder Woman: Earth One.
The Verdict: 10/10